Long before there was a Pediatric AIDS Coalition at UCLA, there was a passionate professor who was bringing awareness to the cause through a class called MAKE ART/STOP AIDS in UCLA’s World Arts and Cultures Department (WAC). The exhibition created by the class was displayed in the Fowler Museum of Cultural History in 2006, teaching the public about stigma as a way to combat it. Years later, David Gere continues to inspire students to fight the stigma of AIDS, but today he does it through other WAC classes where he shares his Through Positive Eyes project with his students. PAC sat down with David Gere to find out more about how his journey and fight against AIDS began and how we can continue to progress the movement today.
Gere has been an AIDS activist since the early days of the epidemic when he was living in San Francisco in 1985. He recalls why he joined the then-young but growing movement.
“San Francisco was in many ways an epicenter, if not the epicenter, of the epidemic in terms of the numbers of people who were affected and how visible it was,” Gere said. “I remember staying in the Castro District and as you walked on the streets you could see the visible signs of people [with AIDS]. It was a really scary time because nobody knew what was causing this.”
Gere was discovering his own sexuality at the time and meeting people in the art world that were combining AIDS activism and art. By meeting these artists, he became involved with the movement in 1987.
“You can imagine how my coming out and understanding my own sexuality also was very intertwined with what as going on then with the visibility of HIV in that city at that time…Little by little it became a personal obsession of my own until I felt very drawn into the cause, the issue, the circumstances that were surrounding it,” Gere said.
Gere’s first work as an AIDS activist was through the Names AIDS Memorial Quilt. Gere said he was very involved in the project and joined the founders in marches to Washington, D.C.
“I learned the concept of making these memorial panels as a way to overcome stigma related to HIV and to begin the process of mourning for, at that point, hundreds and thousands of people before it became millions of people,” Gere said.
Gere explained the ignorance surrounding the epidemic in its early years when the causes of HIV were still unknown.
“I have a very strong recollection that around 1985 I was at one of the gay pride marches in San Francisco and there were cards being distributed that gave the latest information about what would become safer sex,” Gere said. “There were all kinds of theories. But, it really was people on the ground living their lives who started to think, ‘It’s about sex and it’s about bodily fluids and it’s about the exchange of those fluids.’”
Despite fears rooted in stigma and homophobia, HIV can be only be transmitted in six different ways, through blood, semen, pre-seminal fluids, rectal fluids, vaginal fluids, and breast milk.
Since working on the Quilt Project in San Francisco, Gere became part of the Through Positive Eyes Project, which allows HIV+ individuals who have learned how to use cameras to take photographs in their daily lives and tell stories related to their experiences – mostly about stigma – that are exhibited in museums and online.
Gere recalls a moving story about a mother that he met through the project named Woodbine who lives in Port Au Prince, Haiti. She is HIV+ but was able to receive the proper treatment to prevent the disease from spreading to her baby.
“At the age of 16, she became a sex worker, which was related to her impoverished state. That was her survival mechanism,” Gere said. “She discovered within a year or so that she was HIV+. She was nine months pregnant when we met her during this project. She had the baby while we were with her and she was taking drugs and on account of her having access to those drugs, her baby was born HIV negative.”
He emphasizes that there are many more beautiful stories like this one that comes from people working together to build awareness and to make medications available to those at risk of contracting HIV.
“There’s good news about Pediatric HIV in the world, but it requires knowledge, information, doctors prescribing the correct medicines and then providing access and some organization to pay for and provide those medications,” Gere said.
In addition to Through Positive Eyes, Gere is also involved with the UCLA “Sex Squad,” another project related to arts activism and the AIDS epidemic that works to reduce the stigma surrounding HIV.
“Both [Through Positive Eyes and the UCLA Sex Squad] are meant to reduce stigma and to open up the space for dialogue and sharing because that’s the anecdote. It’s kind of like if you could do anything, if you could spray some special perfume and take the stigma away, it would at least start with face to face interaction,” Gere said.
According to Gere, the main issue that prevents AIDS from being completely eradicated is the fear of getting tested, which relates to the stigma around AIDS. If someone is tested, they can go into treatment and get their viral load – the amount of HIV in one’s blood – potentially down to zero, but they must first break free of the stigma preventing them from getting tested.
“If we can reduce the stigma that prevents people from getting tested, then there will be less viruses communicated to other people and we can start to peel the numbers back,” Gere said.
Organizations like PAC are working to reduce the stigma and educate communities about the facts surrounding HIV to prevent the spread of ignorance and misinformation.
“I want to give a lot of credit and acknowledgment to PAC for doing what [it does,] because that’s the heart of it,” Gere explains. “You don’t see it every day, you don’t think about it every day, it’s not on your mind. And so the recognition that we have this huge epidemic of HIV is somehow lost on us.”
To keep working toward an AIDS-free generation, we must educate and raise awareness about the ways that HIV can and cannot be spread, the medications that can treat the disease, and the fact that it is no longer a death sentence.
At Dance Marathon, PAC works to inform the dancers and moralers about the cause in order to further spread this awareness. Gere believes that events like Dance Marathon truly help to reduce stigma.
“Every year, when I hear that there was an even bigger group at Dance Marathon, and that more people are involved in PAC and that there is more learning about HIV, that really gives me heart. It would be so easy on another college campus, where there was no PAC, for thousands of students do not have basic information about HIV and not be thinking about how to reduce stigma,” said professor David Gere.
It is up to every one of us to stand up to the ignorance surrounding our cause and spread the irrefutable facts. It can be challenging to have that uncomfortable conversation with a loved one and call them out, but it’s the personal conversations that really leave a ripple. Together, we can end the stigma and be the first generation to eradicate AIDS.
“The continual sharing of information, the building of empathy, the reducing of stigma, those are the things that we can do and it gets done through organizations like PAC,” Gere said.
Gere is speaking at Dance Marathon at 2:10pm on April 6th, 2019. To see him speak, register to dance or morale at: https://www.up4thefight.org/ucla2019/Account/Register.
Written by: Tilly Friedlander